Life Without the Gospel
Imagine life without the Gospel. For many people, even for many people that we know, this is their reality. What would such a life be like? How would we live, think, be?
Without the Gospel we have only the law, only demands, rules, a raging conscience which is devouring us or which is caged and ignored. Without the Gospel there is no Jesus on the cross, no forgiveness of sin by His blood, no comfort in His Word. What is the result of such a void?
The answer is two-fold: pride or despair. A Pharisee or a Judas. Without the Gospel we are flung toward pride on the one hand, and despair on the other. Our Lutheran Confessions give us this insight:
As long as they hear the bare preaching of the Law, and nothing concerning Christ, and therefore do not learn from the Law to perceive their sins aright, [they] either become presumptuous hypocrites (who swell with the opinion of their own righteousness) as the Pharisees, or despair like Judas. [Formula of Concord, Epitome V.7]
We have to do something with our sin. If we cannot confess our sins and hear the promise of forgiveness, then we are set to get rid of our sins in another way. Either we act like we have overcome sin, or we know that sin has overcome us. Without the Gospel we go around like Pharisees or like Judas, governed by pride or despair. These are the only options. (There is perhaps a third option: total indifference to sin, but this is really the worst form of pride.)
Pride tries to handle sin by overcoming it. We see this effort embodied in the Pharisees. By all accounts they were very pious and outwardly holy. They added to the Ten Commandments hundreds of extra laws, but the common thing about all of these laws is that they were keep-able, do-able. This is the way of all man-made laws.
We tend to think that all the extra laws the Pharisees invented would make things more difficult; their standard would be more difficult to keep, but the opposite is true. As more laws are added the simplicity of the ten commandments is obscured. Traditions tend toward externals, and while the ten commandments demand love and sacrifice, traditions demand certain clothes and manner of hand washing. The law demands our heart, soul, mind and strength; traditions may be kept with our hands.
“Don't smoke.” “Don't dance.” “Don't eat meat.” Please add to the list your favorite man-made law. Whatever laws we add the the Scriptures might be difficult, but they are always possible. And this possibility is where pride lives. Whenever humanity invents a law it dulls the accusing edge of God's law until you have mere instruction that asks for correction instead of demanding repentance. This is the road of pride, the way of the Pharisee.
The other road taken without the Gospel is the path of despair. This is the result of the law doing what it is meant to do: it convicts us of our sin. The law shows us our sin; it always accuses. But the Lord intends that the Gospel would then come around to comfort us with the forgiveness of our sins. Without this comfort despair is given free reign; despondency runs free. This is the way that Judas went, and King Saul.
While our pride seeks to overcome sin, despair results from being overcome by sin. The Lord intends neither. He does not leave us to handle sin and death by our own resources and strength. His solution for our sin is the death of Jesus, His suffering, His blood, His cross and the resulting forgiveness and life. We take up the battle against sin not with our will or emotions but with our Lord Jesus and His Word of forgiveness and life.
Would that the Lord would keep us both from presumptuous pride and despair of His promises, and keep us in the comfort of His Gospel. And more, for all of us know people who live without the Gospel; whose lives are a swing between pride and despair. May God open our lips to speak His law and shed the light of His Gospel into the darkness of pride and despair. Amen.